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Creating a Masterpiece: A Wine Harvest at Ab Astris Vineyards

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I imagine participating in a European grape harvest, one of the items rattling in my bucket list. I envision myself in pastoral harvest-related masterpieces such as Vincent Van Gogh’s The Red Vineyard, and I am transported back to a simpler time. Little did I know that a pandemic would help me realize my goal in a Texas kind of way.

My wife and I journeyed through a portion of the Texas Wine Country last January, visiting several wineries between Austin and Kerrville. Ab Astris Winery, along Highway 290 near Stonewall, is one of those places. So good, we thought, that we became wine club members. In July, I heard that the hunt was on for volunteers to participate in a multi-week harvest, depending on how the varietals suited for the Texas climate communicated they were ready to be picked. Armed with masks, hand sanitizer, and a goal, I signed up.

Creating a Masterpiece: A Wine Harvest at Ab Astris Vineyards

Photo: John Spaulding.

Securing a spot at a local motor inn in Johnson City, I anticipated an early morning of picking and grinning. Meeting dozens of like-minded volunteers at 6 a.m. is no problem, when the reward begins with egg and sausage tortillas washed down with gourmet coffee. Owners Tony and Erin Smith supplied the breakfast, accompanied by their daughters Kristen and Kathyrn and their spouses Mike and Mitchell.

The Ab Astris (Latin meaning “of the stars”) family is truly all in, with each member contributing unique talents to the enterprise’s success. Their story, like so many Texas vintners, is one of a vision, fueled by hard work and a determination to succeed. The years-long talk of viticulture was originally confined to California family gatherings, mainly between Tony, a San Antonio radiologist, and son-in-law Mike, a Dallas corporate attorney. And the more wine they drank, the more plausible their dream would sound. Exasperated, Erin finally moved the needle by challenging them to either commit to a plan or quell their aspirations. Game on.

Creating a Masterpiece: A Wine Harvest at Ab Astris Vineyards

Photo: John Spaulding

Ab Astris began in 2015, after enlisting the help of expert winemaker John Rivenburg, now a consultant after his years as co-founder of Bending Branch Winery. The Smiths purchased the parcel that was originally a part of the LBJ Ranch, just a few grape-stomps away from the Lyndon Baines Johnson National Historic Park in Stonewall, along the Pedernales River. Currently 12 acres of varietals are under cultivation, including Tannat, Petit Syrah, Montepulciano, Souzao, and Clairette Blanche. In the beginning, they sourced their grapes mainly from the High Plains and became an early standout for their Tempranillo.

Creating a Masterpiece: A Wine Harvest at Ab Astris Vineyards

Photo: John Spaulding. Owners Tony and Erin Smith.

Until Kristen and Mike quit their jobs to join the operation, Erin was the cornerstone. Tony said “Erin was so instrumental when we opened, as basically she was running it (the tasting room), a lot of times by herself.” Upon hearing from visitors who mention that they’d enjoy doing what she’s doing, Erin exclaimed, “There’s such a romanticism that people have about this life. I absolutely love what we’re doing, but it is a LOT of work.” She credits Tony for his persistence, saying, “Anything he’s put his mind to, he’s done.”

The family is fortunate to have two sons-in-law who contribute a great deal to the winery’s success. Mike has become the principal winemaker in conjunction with John Rivenburg, and Mitchell has a head for finance and is an acknowledged “foodie,” with a restaurant background. Daughter Kristen says of their wine venture, “This is our family business, and it means everything to us…..Our parents talk about this—that they want to leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren.”

And the wines? Besides the well-regarded Tempranillo, their claim to fame is the Tannat, a grape native to Southwestern France, and one that is increasingly successful in Texas. They also won four gold medals at the recently held San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, celebrating their 2016 Tempranillo, 2017 Tannat, 2016 Merlot and 2019 Picpoul.

Creating a Masterpiece: A Wine Harvest at Ab Astris Vineyards

Photo: John Spaulding. Buddy the Ab Astris Winery rescue dog provides support to volunteer harvesters.

That brings me back to my grape-harvesting experience. With sunrise still a promise but not yet a reality, the other volunteers and I fan out into rows of pick-ready bunches of Tannat. The tightly formed and two pound-heavy blue-purple clusters are snipped from the main vine and kerplunked into a waiting five-gallon bucket. We pick over 12 tons of fruit and gather at picnic tables under the spreading canopy of live oaks down the hill from the tasting room. The barbecue sandwiches with choice of Ab Astris wine by the glass has made it all worthwhile. We laugh and gaze at our purple hands, glancing at the dozen large bins bursting with fruit. Soon the flatbed truck will arrive and our half-day’s toil will be loaded and taken to a nearby crushing facility.

Creating a Masterpiece: A Wine Harvest at Ab Astris Vineyards

Photo: John Spaulding.

How can you participate in such an activity? Since we were wine club members and on the mailing list, we were notified of the upcoming harvest. However, even if you are not a member of a wine club, check winery websites and follow social media in the early summer of 2021. You can determine if a particular winery needs harvesting help by contacting them directly ahead of time.

My harvest experience was a fulfilling and exhausting one. I knew I had a hand in creating what I imagine to be a masterpiece wine in a couple of all-too-long years. And speaking of masterpieces, I now can picture myself among the subjects of what a Van Gogh, de Goya or Gauguin painted in their own harvest experiences. Cheers!